By now, you’ve probably settled into the “new normal”, perhaps adopting hobbies you hitherto had zero interest in (endless Zoom pub quizzes, baking bread, burning down 5G masts) and watching online gigs. Last night, the biggest of them all so far arrived, as One World: Together At Home arrived like a lockdown Live Aid. Lady Gaga laudably ransacked her contacts book to curate over 100 artists beaming in from their homes across the globe.
With a line-up groaning with festival-headlining talent (The Killers, Billie Eilish), part of the novelty was glimpsing behind the velvet rope into megastar’s abodes, like Through The Keyhole meets Glastonbury. Who has the nicest house? Which technological butterfingers has filmed their contribution in portrait as opposed to landscape mode? (Step forward Sir Paul McCartney) Who’s selected the most baffling location to record their effort? That’d be Sir Elton John, belting out ‘I’m Still Standing’ in his garden on a piano incongruously located underneath a basketball hoop.
In the six-hour pre-show, Jameela Jamil promises us “a moment of joy and respite” as we honour our frontline workers, before Cali singer Andra Day launches into an acoustic version of the uplifting gospel soul of ‘Rise Up’, which sets the musical tone for the evening: earnest odes to overcoming adversity delivered with closed-eyed sincerity. Around hour two, a kind of solemn-warbling snowblindness kicks in.
Thankfully, though, some artists didn’t receive the maudlin memo. “Clap with us!” implores Sofi Tukker‘s Tucker Halpern during the rave-up of ‘Purple Hat’ – as a British nation who’ve lost all track of days presumably think: ‘Is it Thursday at 8pm already?’, poised to make a beeline to the balcony with a pot and wooden spoon.
Ever the reliable Las Vegas showmen, The Killers‘ Brandon Flowers and Ronnie Vannucci Jr deploy the bulletproof ‘Mr Brightside’ as a duo (with a Casio keyboard straight from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights). Rita Ora brings pop-video style different camera angles to the banger ‘I Will Never Let You Down’ – and teams up with Liam Payne remotely for their Fifty Shades Freed collab ‘For You’. Following an earlier all-the-feels rendition of ‘Mad World’, Adam Lambert keeps glam and carries on with the turbo-charged bop ‘Superpower’, and the reliably magnetic Christine And The Queens delivers an early standout moment with spine-tingling versions of ‘People I’ve Been Sad’ and ‘Mountains (We Met)’ – on a squeaky floor.
There are unexpected moments of levity. Kesha is heckled by her cats. Jessie J announces that she’s going to sing two songs then, after ‘Flashlight’, they cut to to the next act, giving the impression of her being virtually sheep-crooked off. But it transpires acts have recorded two songs which were then scattered throughout, like a random musical Chatroulette. There’s a lack of spontaneous moments – to the extent that when Charlie Puth sings ‘See You Again’ in front of an unmade bed, Twitter (deprived of drama) reacts as if he’s artfully littered it with an array of butt-plugs spelling out ‘LOVE NHS’.
When Lady Gaga appears for the main event, she declares: “What I’d like tonight, if I can, is to give you the permission for the moment to… ‘Smile'”, before launching into a theatrical cover of the Nat King Cole ballad. Stevie Wonder poignantly tackles his late friend Bill Withers‘ ‘Lean On Me’, before Paul McCartney pays tribute to his late mother Mary, who was a nurse and midwife, then takes to the piano for ‘Lady Madonna’.
It’s up to Elton to bring an iron-clad sing-a-long karaoke classic with ‘I’m Still Standing’, under his aforementioned hoop. Jimmy Fallon – who’s on slightly muted hosting duties along with fellow late-night comedy hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert – and The Roots provide another fun moment with healthcare workers grooving to Men In Hats’ ‘Safety Dance’.
The latter proves particularly vital since Lizzo eschews her good-times anthems like ‘Juice’ and ‘Good As Hell’ in favour of a serious and soulful piano-led cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes unveil a mawkish loved-up cover of Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’. The latter is rivalled only by Jennifer Lopez’s overwrought spin on Barbara Streisland’s ‘People’ for (however well-intentioned) on-the-nose unintentional hilarity.
Unexpectedly, it’s the Rolling Stones and Keith Urban who make best use of technology for showmanship. Charisma-geyser Mick Jagger and co making a joyously creative visual joke about granddads being unable to work Zoom, and Charlie Watts air-drumming to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. Urban, meanwhile, becomes his own one-man band on a cover of Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’. John Legend goes full Keeping Up Appearances‘ Hyacinth Bucket ostentatiously getting-the-Royal-Doulton-out by strategically sitting in front of shelves laden with Grammys, as he teams up virtually with Sam Smith on Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’. Siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas grapple with Bobby Hebb/Boney M’s ‘Sunny’ – although her lack of microphone makes her trademark hushed vocals barely audible.
Throughout the night, each performance is followed by Children In Need-style segments highlighting some of the heroes involved in combating the awfulness outside. Although the show avoids any direct political points, it’s notable that it’s a peon to the WHO, mere days after President Trump’s defunding. While she wasn’t singing, it was Beyoncé who cut through any emollient all-in-this-together ‘great leveller’ boilerplate by highlighting the effect of coronavirus on black Americans who “disproportionately belong to those essential parts of the workforce that do not have the luxury of working from home”.
The most powerful moments arrive when personal tracks from Billie Joe Armstrong and Taylor Swift are imbued with new contextual resonance. Green Day‘s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, written about Armstrong’s father, who died of cancer, is poignantly accompanied by footage of empty streets. Despite vowing never to sing ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ live because it concerns her mother’s cancer diagnosis, Swift delivers its powerful, vivid lyrics about praying in doctor’s waiting rooms – visibly overcome at points – to devastating effect.
The night culminates with an Avengers Assemble (Remotely) team-up of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, and John Legend (no awards in sight this time – but a gleaming gold banister ) – accompanied by ivory-tickler Lang Lang – for ‘The Prayer’.
It’s all a tremendous, audacious achievement (and honestly, if it raised $127m, as this did, most people would merrily watch Madonna burping the alphabet from her bathtub – especially as it’s scheduled against All Round To Mrs Brown‘s). But after eight hours, you hope for a cheerful sop of ‘Poker Face’ or ‘Bad Guy’. Perhaps artists refrain from performing fun songs because it might appear as if they’re downplaying the gravity of the situation when, in fact, escapism is what we need right now.
We know everything’s unremittingly terrible – it’s there on the rolling death toll on news network chyrons, in every sleepless night where you worry about relatives classed as key workers, in every conversation where asking “How are you?” is no longer a perfunctory greeting but rather feels like pulling the pin out of a grenade – and what we crave is distraction.
In a night where artists like Lady Gaga socially distanced themselves from their biggest hits, and relentlessly prioritised catharsis and po-faced meaning over disposable and throwaway thrills, One World: Together At Home feels depressing rather than celebratory and life-affirming. Rather than being given permission to smile, it would have been nice to have been offered more reasons to do so.